Seeing the Road Ahead
by Kyell Gold
“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius.”
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
If you’re only a short way into your writing career and you’re discouraged by how far you have to go, there’s a silver lining: you’re on the right path. Being a writer, or indeed any creative professional, takes people through many stages. Ira Glass has talked about “the gap” that happens when you’ve progressed a little way into your field, far enough to recognize the work of the really good people but not there yourself yet. He talks about the importance of pushing through that gap, and I think anyone starting out in a creative field should watch that video.
The above Conan Doyle quotation is one I ran across recently and it struck me as not only another way to look at Ira Glass’s “gap,” but also a way to encourage people who feel stuck there. I think a lot of people starting out in art don’t realize that it takes a certain amount of skill just to be able to evaluate the work of others in your field. When you get to this stage where you’re thinking, “my work will never be as good as these works I admire,” what you may not realize is that you’re already on the way there.
Critiquing is one of the most important skills in writing (and, I think, any art). You have to be able to critique your own work, and the easiest way to develop that skill is to critique the work of others. If you can’t look at a piece and judge its quality, even in a very rough sense, you’re not going to be able to refine your work and make it better; you’re not going to learn from your mistakes and make your next effort even better.
This is hard to do. When you haven’t tried to look at any work objectively, to see what the artist was trying to do and where the flaws are, you see in your own work only the beautiful story that was in your head. When other people look at your work and tell you that your characters are flat or that your dialogue is stiff and unrealistic (or any other critiques), it’s discouraging not (only) because they don’t like it, but because you can’t see those flaws to correct them. It’s like being in that dream where you’re being given a test in a class you can’t remember having taken. In a way, it doesn’t feel fair.
When I read slushpiles for magazines, one of the things that consistently amazed me was how people would send in these terrible submissions, poorly punctuated with grammar and spelling that even most Internet forum posters would cringe at, and they would claim to have read our magazine. I would think, “Seriously? You read our stories and you think this belongs alongside it?” But those people just hadn’t developed the critical faculty yet.
How do you go about this? Discuss writing with other people or read reviews of books from many different sources—friends, professional reviewers, anywhere you can find them. Listen to other people explain critically what’s good and bad about many different pieces of writing and try to understand their views. This is something I still do, because like most things, learning to critique is not something you’re ever done with. Eventually you will develop your own thoughts about what works and doesn’t work, and you will have other beginning writers listening to you.
So if you’re discouraged about the state of your writing (or other art) compared to the people you admire, take heart and keep going. Because you’re on the right path. It’s a long one, but you’re a step closer than you were when you started.